7th Aug 2020


Coronavirus: Italians compared with Germans

  • Pessimism about the future is much higher in Italy than Germany (Photo: Giampaolo Macorig)

The economic downturn sparked by the Covid pandemic will likely push Italy into a much deeper social and political crisis than Germany.

According to 2017 and 2018 data, collected and analysed for EUobserver, Italy - compared to its EU partner - is in a worse position not only for fiscal and economic reasons, but also for a wider lack of trust in institutions, politicians, the legal system, media, and police.

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Italians fall short of trust, care less about values such as freedom and are generally more in favour of a "strong government".

The role played by social trust in enhancing development and growth is well established in social science literature.

The World Happiness Report 2020, a United Nations-led research program monitoring happiness level around the world, with data from more than 150 countries, identifies in 'trust' - measured by the strength of social connections between people - one of the intrinsic component of happiness.

Why is social trust so important?

Because data shows that people with higher levels of interpersonal and institutional trust fare significantly better than others, across several negative situations, including: ill-health, unemployment, low income, different sources of discrimination, family breakdown, and fears about the safety of the streets.

Living in a positive and trusting social environment helps not only to improve directly individual well-being, but also reduces the costs of adversity in terms of happiness, reducing the impact of its loss.

In the latest available ranking, Germany is well above Italy (17th, and 30th, respectively) and indeed the component of social support plays a decisive role.

At the micro-level, a very insightful scientific article was published recently in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, reporting the result of an experiment aimed to provide evidence of the positive role played by trust and positive social interactions in creating the perfect environment to boost cooperation and economic development.

In a recent interview in the Financial Times, the historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Yuval Noah Harari, presenting his vision of a 'new normality' after Covid-19, speaks about a future crossroads, which leads to authoritarian surveillance on one side and to individual civic responsibility on the other.

Social capital and trust will be decisive in defining the path.

So where does Italy stand compared to Germany? Let's start with money.

As the impact of the lockdown is hitting firstly small businesses and less-protected workers, Italians have less chance of keeping their job than German colleagues.

According to the 2018 European Social Survey, Italy has less workers on contract than Germany (43 percent against 52 percent), and less people working for companies with more than 50 employees (15 percent against 37 percent).

Moreover, one-in-four Italians declares to be in bad economic conditions, whereas for Germany it's only one-in-10 respondents.

Pessimism, and more negative expectations regarding the future, seem to be the case for Italy with respect to Germany, and a possible justification lies also in data concerning human values: quite surprisingly, the sample of respondents to European Social Survey show an interesting and different profile for Italian and German citizens.

More than 92 percent of German respondents consider it important to be loyal, while for Italians the figure is 66 percent.

Some 78 percent of Germans consider important to help others; only 58 percent of Italian share this view.

Getting back to World Happiness Report, the perception of freedom and generosity are two other intrinsic components of social happiness.

Trust in political institutions is generally low within EU, but Italians look particularly cynical.

Italy vs Germany – Trust in Parliament

The Istat Multiscopo Survey collects information on Italy in 2017. On a scale 0-10, one-in-four respondents (24.4 percent) declares a level of trust 0 [zero] in the Italian parliament.

The percentage increases slightly for the European Parliament - but we still are talking about one-in-five people showing trust 0 [zero].

Confidence in the media is also very low, given that more than one-in-two Italians (57 percent) don't read the news.

The same goes for public authorities. One-in-five Italians thinks that if his lost wallet were to found by a policeman, it would be highly unlikely to get it back.

Italy vs Germany – Perceptions of 'freedom'

According to data from 2018 European Social Survey, Italians give less importance then Germans to freedom, and more importance to having a "strong government".

Italy vs Germany – 'Strong' government

If the new challenge for democracies at the time of Covid-19 is to avoid mass surveillance and authoritarianism, Rome seems to be much less equipped than Berlin.

Author bio

Stefano Vergine is a freelance investigative journalist based in Milan. Luciano Canova is an economist teaching at Enrico Mattei School, in Milan.

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Italy has a responsibility, too

Little wonder the leaders of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are unwilling to sign off: they're not going to give money so the Italians can fund a tax cut in the middle of an economic crisis.

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